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Building a ‘Sense of Community’ Online Among Teachers & Students

By: Larry Ferlazzo

The following is excerpted from the EdWeek Teacher blog, which is covering the shift to online learning during coronavirus. MELS co-principal Patrick Finley speaks about how Crew is keeping NYC Outward Bound School communities connected despite social distancing.

Advisory is a critical tool for sustaining schools through the Coronavirus Crisis.

Patrick Finley is the co-principal at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, New York City:

As an EL Education school, our school begins each day with an advisory period that we call Crew that is similar to many advisory systems, but so much more than a grab bag of team-building activities. Crew is a small group of students that gathers regularly with an educator who creates structures and activities meant to instill a sense of community for all members. Our mantra, “We are Crew, not passengers,” carries with it the idea that each Crew leader has a duty to bring together a random assortment of students and help them to understand that the whole is greater than the parts.

With Damon McCord, I am the co-principal and co-founder of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) in Queens, a very diverse, unscreened 6-12 school in the New York City public school system, and a partner with New York City Outward Bound, which is also creating resources to support teachers during the coronavirus crisis.

When we opened our school 10 years ago, we took our 19 staff members on a camping trip that modeled Crew practices. As school leaders, we knew that this work was necessary not only to show our staff how to lead Crew but also to help them understand the importance of establishing meaningful connections with students and colleagues. Since that time, we attribute our success to our dedication to Crew.

This week, we found ourselves once again building a new school. This time it wasn’t a choice; our hand was forced by the spread of coronavirus. We had to dismantle our usual program and build out a schedule and system that functioned in a much different way. As we, like so many other faculties, have designed a new schedule and coursework, we have been clear that once again Crew is our most important work.

Crew is the Lifeblood of our School, but now we are in uncharted waters. Eight-hundred and fifty students are floating adrift in the world, each anchored to their own houses without the social connections that sustain their day at school.. Now more than ever, schools must make sure that we are monitoring and supporting the whole child.

With an advisory model, each teacher has a manageable load and a ready-made system for communication and ensuring that students’ basic needs are being met. At MELS, we have already held our first online Crew meetings, with almost all of our students accounted for by an adult who knows them well. Using Zoom, our virtual Crews “circle up” online to check in. Our Crew advisers don’t just distribute links to Google Classrooms. They take time during virtual Crew to check in with individual students and use protocols to connect students to one another and their school community. They ensure that every student can be successful, that they are not just one of a hundred names on a roster. You can see a sample of our initial virtual Crew lessons here.

wemustcontinue.pngThe achievement gap is only going to widen during this time in which school buildings are shut down. Our country’s most vulnerable students will be the most difficult to keep track of and keep engaged. Over the last week, some educators have developed strong online coursework, but  there must be a network of accountability for all students. In the weeks ahead, it is our responsibility as educators to ensure that we have systems for those that are disengaged and lost. We must continue to foster students’ belief that they are part of a community and needed. Crew will be our first line of defense, just as it always has been, for communication with families and students who are vulnerable. Especially in secondary schools, where students are in virtual classes with multiple teachers, having a Crew leader who is responsible for only a small group of students makes it possible to meet each student’s needs.

In remote-learning schools, online classrooms provide each student “passenger” a ticket to board the learning vessel. At MELS, students are not just invited aboard as passengers; they are put to work, and their work is needed and necessary for the boat to function. All must row in order to move forward. In the weeks ahead, our Crew system will support students to be active advocates for themselves and others. The communities developed through Crew give students a support network, a school “family,” and also a responsibility to act when they are called upon to support others.

Like everyone else, we can’t say exactly how the weeks ahead will unfold. One thing we can say is that years of building systems and practices that strengthen community are now going to be put into action. For years, educators have overemphasized skills for standardized tests, and advisory has been seen as a “soft” skill. We know, now more than ever, that advisory and structures like it that foster community among students are as important as any test score.

For those schools without an advisory system, it is never too late to start. Begin with the basic building blocks of teachers and staff working with small groups of students, no more than 16. In the days ahead, these new “advisers” can begin to know each student’s face, name, and story through prompts to check in and contribute to a community of support. Learn from school leaders and students with virtual advisories in place. The work we do in Crew will serve students as much as any content we deliver.

Read the entire article on EdWeek.

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